My students and I will be presenting a new iteration of our Humber Puppet Potpourris, now called PUPPET SCHOOL, at SpringWorks' new mini fest, PuppetWorks, in Stratford, July 12, 13, and 14, 2019.
Wrapped up another semester of puppetry instruction at Humber College, and what a smashing good time it was! We always end the year with a public presentation. This year, we tried something new.
We had a full house that included Ann and David Powell, Robyn Polffus, Eileen Smith, and Frank Meschkuliet, who kindly gave me a cup of Tim Horton’s coffee to keep me going. (Shawna Reiter and I started this day -- as did the students -- first thing in the morning and we didn’t wrap until 10pm.)
We also had a very full stage. Fourteen students is a lot, but once they donned their “puppeteer blacks” and placed their hands on the puppets, they were an impressive army of manipulators who managed to disappear and allow their puppets to take the focus.
It was Shawna’s idea to begin the evening with “a bunch of those little spongy dudes running around all over the place” to serve as whimsical eye-candy: goofy little androgynous characters climbing, sliding, jumping and generally being elflike and silly all over the room while people trickled in and found their seats.
When the evening officially began I took the stage to greet the audience, while all over the room the little spongy antics continued. All part of the plan …
“Good evening and welcome to our final puppetry presentation. We’re calling this a ‘potpourris’ - a sampling of the many things we’ve been working on this semester. Some of the puppets you’ll see are the ordinary classroom puppets that we use for exercises. Some have been found and repurposed. And some have been specially designed and built by Shawna’s production students. And sooooo …. let us begin!”
My little spongy puppets were still scattered around the room, playing and leaping and climbing …
“One of the first things we learn when we study animation theory and then apply it to the practice of live animation, is that it’s not quite so important how a puppet moves, but rather, just as important how a puppet stops.”
Here, just as rehearsed, all of the spongies en mass gave a collective “Hmmmm?” and stopped, frozen in a listening pose to wait for what I would say next. I could hear that rivet of silence that I love so much: the one that tells me that yes, we have them. And so I turned and looked at my waiting characters and said “exactly!” - and there we had it: the first chuckle of the night, and a resounding success from there on.
“We’ve also learned that we can direct the audience’s eye …”
Here I stepped out of the way and let the puppets take over. We’d spent a lot of time rehearsing this sequence, and I was very pleased with the results. This was my “ping-pong” theory come to vivid life. All of the spongy puppets began to assemble from the far corners of the room, but they marked their journeys in increments and they did so One. At. A. Time. First, a little fellow hopped over to a group of puppeteers who were sitting near our table surface. He stopped. Then, from the other side of the stage, another little guy approached a similar cluster of bodies. He stopped. Then the first one, climbing up to the top of someone’s head. Stop. Back to the second one again, hopping across a terrain of heads. Stop. Back to the next guy. And so on. By the time we’d gone back and forth and finished, all of the puppets had made their journeys to our table and landed there with a triumphant “tada!” I wish I’d thought to tape the audience from my vantage point, because, just as we always hope, their heads most certainly must have pinged and ponged from character to character, like an audience watching tennis.
“Very good, but you are all so small. Maybe the people in the back can’t see. Could we scale this operation up a little bit please?”
Here the spongy guys jumped off the table, one by one like dominoes, except for the very last one, who was distracted. Another character had to come up and pull him down. (This was the beginning of our running gag featuring “the puppet who’s always last.”)
Then, one by one, like dominoes, my colourful ball-and-shirt cloth neutrals leapt into view, ready for action. Except for the last one, who climbed up last, struggling.
“Very good. Welcome to our stage. Now, puppets express themselves physically using their bodies. It has to be physical or else we won’t see it. Physical therefore visible. And a lot of this expression actually happens when they use their heads, because that’s where their brains are, and their eyes. So we learn something called Language of the Head don’t we?”
The puppets all nodded their heads, yes.
“And now we know everything we need to know about puppetry, right?”
The puppets all shook their heads, no.
“Well, we know a little bit more than we did before.”
Here the puppets sort of shrugged, tilting their heads in that “maybe so” move that I teach.
“For example, we know that puppets can use their bodies to express different emotions. Puppets can be …”
… and here we went down the line one by one and had the puppets strike the perfect pose …
“… hungry, sad, confused, surprised, worried, scared …”
Again, our last puppet on the end wasn’t paying attention and had to be nudged by the puppet standing next to him.
“… and absent-minded.”
Another laugh. Our running gag is working!
“We also know that puppets can interact with each other.”
Here the puppets traded different interactions: nods, bows, hugs, hand-shakes … except for the one on the end, who had to be nudged again.
“Now, we’d like to show you an extended example of live animation, something that includes everything we’ve learned. You’ll see stops, you’ll see language of the head and interactions, and you’ll also see some fully realized animation as one, sometimes two, and sometimes three manipulators team up on a single character. Here, then, is a little bit of everything …”
What we called “The Island Story” in class as we were cooking it up was a totally non-verbal and completely esoteric piece of puppet theatre that, as my friend Frank said afterward “made no sense, but it didn’t matter.” That was fine by us. It was only loosely a story. What it really was, was a showcase for puppets and puppeteers.
The only hint that we were on an island came from an ambient soundscape added at the last minute. It was lovely, and created an exotic atmosphere just as intended.
The story began with blue waves (one of my old sheets from home) lapping against the floor, and the rising of an ethereal, floating ocean goddess (one of the production student’s creations) who was ushering the waves. When at last the waves retreated, there was a boy (my unfinished homemade bun-raku dummy) who now lay, motionless and manipulator-less on the floor.
One by one the denizens of the island came to check out this lifeless form. A horse (my white cardboard Shaw prototype), two little children with cute shuffling dresses (more of the production student’s work), and then their dad (a production student creation with a beautiful head and live arms inside of a man’s shirt). This character emerged from behind our playing table, approached the boy, knelt, regarded him, lifted him gently from the floor, and placed him upon the table.
The boy then awoke, and stood up, in a beautiful display of full animation as three puppeteers teamed up to create realistic human motion: wake, roll over, stand up, feel woozy, look about, kneel down to look over the edge of the table.
A friendly dog (one of my stuffies from home) came bounding in. The dog and the boy cuddled. The horse returned, which made the boy nervous at first, but then they bonded and the horse invited the boy to ride him. Here again was some lovely manipulation from the team - a human mounting a horse, acutely observed and performed with great detail. When the horse rose up and the boy was astride him, the illusion was remarkable, considering the horse is just cardboard, only a head, with a mop for a mane, and the boy just a lump of white clay with no eyes.
The horse and his boy went for a gallop around the table to (what we presumed to be) a new area of this weird island, and here’s where our menagerie of strange island denizens emerged. Most of these puppets came courtesy of Shawna’s production students: a big yellow monster, a giant scuttling spider, my multi-coloured beanie-bear, an opera singer with a giant mouth and jaunty hat, and a sassy cat. There was also a porcupine whose quills were made of syringes.
Then, for no logical reason (but perfect for esoteric reasons) three of my mask puppets rose up from their puddles of fabric on the floor. (They’d been resting there in plain sight all this time.) They acknowledged each other, found a ukulele, examined it, and placed it on the table. Then they dissolved into the floor again as, one by one, the cloth neutrals appeared on our playing table, found the uke, and passed it along from each to each to each. The puppet at the very end of this line used the uke to bonk another puppet on the head. (A nice laugh.) None of these characters knew what to do with this thing. They hopped down again. And then, tada! Our absent-minded puppet who was always distracted and struggling, picked it up and strummed it, leading into a musical jamboree that was the grand finale of the night: a village of colourful puppets dancing.
We cued music for this sequence: three songs pre-selected by the students: I Need A Hero, I Believe in Miracles, and Hooked on a Feeling. The centre song accompanied a nicely choreographed “pole dance” by one of my cloth neutrals, performed by two students who had obviously spent a lot of time on it. Another student had the brilliantly comical idea of holding up a mirror ball during that pole dance!
The final portion of the night was a Show & Tell hosted by Shawna. A highlight of this sequence was a rapport that developed between the student who designed the opera singer, and the puppeteer who offered to help demonstrate it. These two reacted to each other, responded, and the puppet showed nuance that blew my mind.
Everyone in attendance was extremely complimentary. “It’s a show!” said Frank. “This is a good program now!” said Ann Powell. “We could have this at Stratford this summer!” said Eileen Smith.
Remounting the piece will depend on who’s available and how much time we’ll have to re-polish, but I’d love to do a version of this Puppet Potpourris for Eileen’s PuppetWorks in Stratford, and for the Powell’s Fresh Ideas later this spring.
Actress Mary Berg and I shot our commercial for Dawn liquid detergent today, in a kitchen near High Park. Mary also shot a Starbucks commercial this week, and I just learned that this Dawn spot and the Starbucks ad are both "tied in" to her upcoming cooking show.
Here we are, on set:
I'm so proud -- absolutely bursting at the seams with joy, actually -- to share that Miss Persona was nominated for 2 Emmy Awards’s today: for Outstanding Preschool Children’s Series, and the incredible Kimberly Persona herself for Outstanding Performer in a Children’s, Family Viewing or Special Class Program!
Here's an audition story with a twist ending.
Quite some time ago an advertising executive invited me to submit a video audition for a Dawn Dish Detergent commercial. In the ad, a helpful bottle of Dawn comes to life, walks around, offers its services, and dances a jig along with the theme from Lavern & Shirley.
Okay, so me and no doubt several other Toronto puppeteers made self-tapes and sent them in. I chose to simply dance to the theme song, nice and simple. We wait, we wait, we wait. Some of us even asked each other "Did you ever hear back from that Dawn thing?" "Nope, never did. You?" "Nope." "Hmmmm .... I wonder who got it."
Fast-forward a couple of months, and, by coincidence, my agent sends me out to audition for a commercial for Dawn - not as a puppeteer, mind you, but as a regular human actor. (I do that sometimes.) For this, it's for the part of a stuffy butler who's holding a bottle of Dawn on a silver platter, standing by, ready to serve.
At my audition -- in person, this time -- I deliver my one scripted line "Yes, of course Miss Mary" and I'm just on my way out the door when I stop and ask: "By the way, is this part of the same campaign where there's a bottle of Dawn that comes to life and dances around?"
"Um ... we were going to do that, but we've changed the entire scheme to this butler guy. How would you even know about that?"
"Because I'm one of the puppeteers who submitted a video for that!"
"Oh," they said. "Well, we're not doing that one anymore."
Right then. I could see them all jotting down notes as I walked out.
Well, by golly, I got the call last night: I am to play the Dawn butler. I'm being fitted for a deluxe tuxedo on Monday and we shoot next week!
I just spent three happy days on the set of a Ryerson University student film, coaching a cast of new puppeteers in the basics of TV puppetry.
Most of the action, comedy, and drama in this delightful screen story focuses on the behind-the-scenes life of the show-within-the-show, particularly on a young puppeteer who yearns to be recognized.
Limbs: A Short Comedy
"For every Bert and Ernie, somebody's got to suck it up and play Bert's left arm. As Ryerson U film students, we feel that."
"Every Muppet needs somebody crammed deep inside Jim Henson's left armpit to play puppet limbs. Our somebody has had enough."
Director: Franci Dimitrovska
Cast: Marienne Castro, Anesti Danelis, Heather Dicke, Sadie Fay, Michelle Urbano,
I've been with Theatre Direct's tabletop puppet show, Old Man and the River, since its very inception - ever since the earliest workshop 5 years ago when a focus group of 5-year-olds laughed at a man made of popsicle sticks who woke up and swept his floor. Our "trees" were pool noodles back then - plain, naked pool noodles - gaffer-taped to a literal table top. It's been such a full and lovely road of developing, tweaking, building and learning all these years later, and I don't think I've ever felt so close to a show or a group of creators.
It may be that Sunday's performances at Crow's Theatre were the last, at least for the foreseeable future. What we leave behind, then, is the lasting memory of a perfect piece of intricately-choreographed puppet theatre, one that not only entertained people by tickling their souls and touching their hearts, but also by inspiring some folks in profound ways.
One day, a teacher sent us this letter:
"This morning I took the kids in to school. When I checked in at the office, the woman who works in there was praising this little boy. He left the office feeling good, and then she told me the story. He is known for bullying kids around the school. She had a talk with him recently about how whenever a child comes in crying or upset it is his name that comes up. Well...yesterday, a girl who is regularly bullied by him, had broken her arm last week and was at the school. This boy shadowed her all day, looking out for her, read to her, cared for her. She even rested her head on his shoulder. When he was asked about it he talked about seeing Old Man and the River. Somehow the performance shifted his perspective, and it seems that he has made the shift from curmudgeonly child, to a vulnerable caring child. I know this performance is powerful, and this is amazing and truly magical and brings tears!"
Shaw Festival Theatre has commissioned Alexandra Montegnese and I to create a short, funny, non-verbal tabletop puppet show all about the history of the Niagara region. There are so many important and colourful true-life episodes to choose from!
Here is our work in progress:
My last gig of the summer was an excursion to Almonte to perform my Good Old Fashioned Punch & Judy Show at a really cool (but actually hot & sunny) new event called Paddles & Puppets, raising money for the Almonte Hospital.
The highlight of this excursion? A private tour of Noreen Young's retrospective museum exhibit, with tour guide Noreen Young herself. I grew up watching Noreen's art on TV, from Hey Diddle Day to Today's Special to Under the Umbrella Tree. She's actually one of my early heroes, and so the honour was truly mine to come to Almonte, perform at her new event, and revisit her incredible body of work.
The other highlight? That ice cold beer on the patio of the Barley Mow, of course!
Actor and Puppeteer. That's me! Here's where you'll find all my news!